What is Headless Commerce?

Why should you care about headless commerce?

Headless commerce (or API-first commerce) is becoming a less obscure term to marketers, but it’s still murky for many – especially what it means for real brands and real customers. I could dive into the technicalities of what headless commerce is upfront, but I’ll instead start with a story.

Customers Want to Shop Anywhere, Anytime
In response to the example I mentioned, a marketer might say, “We need to make the jump from ad to individual product page more seamless to avoid cart abandonment.” But why do I need to leave Facebook or Instagram at all? Why can’t I see that jacket, choose my size and color and checkout then and there? Beyond that, why isn’t ANY brand content I see shoppable? With all these new experiences and technologies emerging, why am I stuck essentially with the same options to shop (either on a web storefront or in a brick and mortar) I’ve had for years?

Sooner than marketers want to admit, more customers than not will expect to shop directly in Instagram, or on their Alexa devices, on their smart refrigerators and whatever other new touchpoints emerge 10 years from now. It comes down to enabling commerce at any of these points of inflection, not just when a customer has wandered to your web storefront. You can’t do this if you’re struggling to adapt your backend each time a new channel emerges. You have to have a strategy that can handle new touchpoints as they come. And that’s what brings us to headless commerce.

Headless commerce vs. traditional commerce

Headless commerce isn’t as painful or violent as it might sound. A better analogy might be that headless commerce severs the marriage between your front and back ends. But in this divorce, each side comes out a winner since changes to one side can be made without disrupting the other. This saves time and allows you to deliver a better customer experience across your different customer segments.

Divorcing the front- and back-ends also opens up the possibility to use what’s best for converting customers on the website. The most common use case would be for pushing content to the front end through a brand’s existing content management system (CMS), instead of its commerce platform.

If your company has very few systems needing to plug into the front end, you may actually be better served by a full-suite commerce platform.

Beyond your storefront

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with your head. However, getting rid of it can present new opportunities. If you’ve ever felt constrained regarding your ability to build a network of customer touchpoints you can control with the same underlying tools, it might be time to go headless. Larger brands with an established CMS also find it’s a good fit for starting to sell direct to consumer.

The always-connected world we live in offers myriad other customer touchpoints that traditional ecommerce heads can’t reach—through voice-powered home speakers, smart appliances, or even mirrors. Future-proof your business by embedding content, products, and checkout capability wherever customers are.

Brands Must Rethink the Separation Between Marketing and Commerce
Adapting to these new touchpoints requires eliminating old barriers between marketing and commerce functions. We’ve all seen the beautiful marketing experiences brands create to entice customers and showcase their products. However, these offerings usually end up directing customers right back to bland traditional product pages. The marketing website and ecommerce site are often two separate entities entirely since traditional ecommerce engines can’t support the marketing content. You can create the sexiest, most innovative marketing experiences you want, but if your backend can’t integrate factors like product catalogs, shopping baskets, account info, and more, you’ll always be back at square one. Headless commerce solutions enable brands across verticals to transcend these old paradigms by solving for just that obstacle.

How Headless Commerce Solves the Problem

Leveraging API-oriented commerce, headless commerce architecture supports all functions – commerce, experience management, payment, content, personalization – can be decoupled services. That means you can deconstruct core commerce platform attributes (e.g., product catalog, shopping basket, account services, payment integration and order processing) for more flexibility.

That solves the problem of those old silos and limitations. Since headless commerce provides all commerce logic through the engine API, all information is available to any new channel on a consistent basis. Using an API-first strategy, brands can integrate data about each individual customer regardless of channel.

Whether you’re creating a landing page or microsite for a campaign, or even a blog, when you highlight a product or service, you don’t have to create a click trail for the visitor. It should no longer be an epic quest to find your e-commerce site and ‘add to bag’ button. You can meet that engaged shopper where they are, right on your latest blog post, Instagram or social ad.

Then you can allow customers to buy wherever they want to – which is to say, anywhere. Shoppable videos, social media ads, store kiosks, Alexa-enabled purchase capabilities, virtual and augmented reality…the list goes on. That’s not just the reality for consumers, either – B2B buyers have the same expectations, whether they’re reordering parts or configuring medical equipment.

Wherever a buyer interacts with your brand, an API-first approach connects each interaction to ensure consistent experiences regardless of touchpoint. Plus, on the marketing side, brands have more comprehensive, accurate and accessible data. All of these factors can radically change the customer experience in ways brands have barely conceived.

Is Headless Commerce a New Thing? (Or Just a New Name for Something Command C Has Always Done?

Yes and no. The concept isn’t really new, but the reliability and accessibility of these kinds of solutions is new. Headless commerce is about trading information between two disparate systems, likely using an API. There are already many examples of this kind of integration. For instance, subscribing to a newsletter often uses the email service provider’s API to send the user’s information to your mailing list. An ecommerce checkout uses your payment gateway’s API – think Paypal, Stripe, Authorize.net, etc. – to send your data to authorize payment. Headless commerce may sound new or trendy because “headless” sounds a lot catchier than the more technical alternatives for describing this integration of systems.

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